Game Buzz is a weekly opinion column designed to take an irreverent look at one of the biggest news stories to break in the past week. Every Friday we’ll be bringing you another slice of reaction to topical gaming news, and inviting you to agree, disagree, shout assent, vent rage, scream and complain to you heart’s delight. This week, following the both hilarious and rage-inducing verbal battle between CVG and Titchmarsh & Co. earlier in the week, we take a look at the bloodthirsty nature of modern gaming.
I'm dressed in a ninja-like catsuit with yellow trim, I've just thrown a spear-bearing rope at my adversary's chest and reeled them in so I can flash a string of punches in to their face. There are powerless to stop me and I finish my combo with an uppercut, sending my nemesis crashing through the roof . I jump up after them and find that they are now blearily swaying, barely conscious, rooted to the spot and unable to move. 'FINISH HIM!' a loud voice bellows, and so I rip off my mask and bathe my foe in searing flame and stand mute as their skin falls off gorily, and their body explodes, messily scattering bloody bones to all corners. The same deep voice from earlier pronounces me victorious. 'FATALITY!' he moos like Doctor Doolittle's psychotic bull, and laughs deeply.
There's no real 'need' for Mortal Kombat when you think about it, which always seems to be the question that the anti-violence lobby invariably drums up: 'But why do you need to be able to rip the leg off of your assailant and beat him into a bloody pulp with it?' 'Why do you need to be able to see realistic damage of a shotgun shot physically removing someone's head?' Or, more recently,'why do you need to be able to go into an airport and mow down a bunch of civilians?' Sensationalism surely has no defence.
I'd duck and dive and bring attention to bear on the wealth of 'non-violent titles' (hell...even certain Italian plumbers would be arrested for leaping up and down on reptiles repeatedly) but we all know that won't cut it. It's difficult, whether defending yourself as a gamer from parent, girlfriend, church or state, but there's always that sense of never quite being totally convincing when attempting to explain the artistic merit of Alex Mercer surfing a random civilian pedestrian down the street using their own guts as a slick wave.
Videogames are violent, and perhaps inherently so. Even the majority of children's games can probably be found to have a certain amount of sterilised violence locked within their gameplay somewhere. Perhaps this is actually even worse. You can't just go out into the wild, steal a bunch of animals and train them up to all go cockfighting and if someone hit you with the Master Sword as much as Link does when fighting Ganon, you'd be a bubbling pile of viscous, crimson apology...but the games wouldn't tell you that. Of course, this is all frankly ridiculous, but it does serve to illustrate how violence plays a very large part within the make-up of the industry's fruits.
I'm not, however, going to go into the 'games are ruining our kids' debate, this is far bigger than that. The ill-informed propaganda perpetuated by 'experts' on programmes such as Titchmarsh's chat show and Supernanny (read that again and try not to laugh) can be whittled down to a much larger problem: poor parenting. CVG's Tim Ingham made the point that you can parentally lock consoles to not play games of a certain classification, stores are becoming ever more stringent, and yet still, as was pointed out by Dr James Newman, New Media lecturer at Edge Hill College speaking in the April issue of EDGE last year, 'It is traditional in our culture to deride as trivial anything that is associated with childhood. This is why terms such as ‘game’ and ‘play’ are so difficult for the industry to use in relation to their activity - hence ‘interactive entertainment’.
Ah yes. One of the biggest phrases flung around like baboon crap during these verbal fisticuffs is 'interactive media', and its alleged dangers. Ageing sexpert (I preferred Lydia's description of her as a 'shrieking banshee' myself) Julie Peasgood and softcore-porn-peddler Kelvin McKenzie essentially drummed up the age-old notion that actively controlling the violent events onscreen somehow makes violent games much worse than violent films.
I don't necessarily believe that's true, although games do struggle to make interactivity compelling in more realistic, adult games without violence or resorting to minigames, and it is only really now that we're seeing that change. As Jens Matthais, the Creative Director of Machinegames, mentioned in this month's gamesTM, 'In order to provide a game dynamic, to make it a game, you need to have some sort of system that the player can perform. [...] When you see a dot and stop it from moving, that's kind of the easiest thing to do.' Now imagine that dot with two legs, two arms and a head. Ex-Maxis developer Chris Hecker, speaking in the same publication, suggests that 'violence is a very easy way to put meaningful conflict and challenge in games'.
Alternatives to violence have always existed, and now we're seeing truly rich expansive experiences that don't need to rely on stopping that dot with brute force. It's easy to forget that in spite of the sophistication of it's hardware, gaming is still a relatively immature form of entertainment. Violence is easy way of creating meaningful interaction, but it's not the only one and as the industry really starts flowering we'll see more risks being taken, more emotions tapped and killing things will cease to be separable from the context of its implementation.
I'm not a psychologist, nor am I an anthropologist, but it could certainly be argued that videogames, as with most art and entertainment forms, discuss and reflect upon reality. Newton's Laws of Movement combined with our historical fascination with fighting things meant that violence was always going to be one of the first things we turned to in a virtual space, free from consequence. There are two things that anti-gaming lobbyists forget when blathering about violent games and kids and culture: 1. What the hell were the kids doing with them in the first place, and 2. GAMES AREN'T REAL! Real fights aren't fun. Much like two virgins having sex for the first time, there's a lot of flailing limbs, unexpected pain and you can't look anyone in the eye afterwards. Plus black eyes take forever to go down. You get none of that with a game.
What you do get is stress relief. Your boss getting you down? Jump into a virtual world and go joyriding. It's not just basic necessity, gaming has opened up a whole new dimension of escapism and power fantasy, a place where you can kick some ass with sword, shotgun and spell without fear of recrimination. Far from teaching people that it's ok to do this, I would argue that it's a perfectly feasible medium for the outpouring of legitimate negative feeling. Don't worry, I'm not about to compare Modern Warfare 2 with a primal scream, but there's something to be said about beating the crap out of your friend's fighter in Street Fighter IV and then going for a beer.
In the end, armed with informative ratings systems and age classifications, it's my own choice whether or not I want to go and take a bunch of colourful dots and smash them to pieces. Yes, games are reaching increasing levels of realism both graphically and also in terms of how we interact with those virtually rendered avatars, but there's still an enormous line between me coming home, stressed and fuming, and rescuing the Galaxy from The Flood with the hot end of my Battle Rifle and me going out into the street and mowing people down for kicks.
That said, I have been in a situation where game violence spilled over into the real world. After getting blue shelled just before the end of Rainbow Road, my friend proceeded to throw a shoe at me and beat his nearest neighbour with his own controller.